Antiheroes of All Shapes and Sizes

After a Fourth of July sabbatical, I’m back. This time, we’re talking about the attractive subject of antiheroes. No doubt you’ve encountered an antihero or two in popular culture or in writing, and possibly both. However, since antiheroes come in varying degrees of “anti” and “hero”, I’ve created a helpful guide to help you distinguish between antiheroes that are merely annoying and ones that are on the brink of becoming the villian.

First off: what exactly is an antihero? An antihero is the (or a) main character in the story, but possesses many qualities that are opposite that of a traditional hero. For instance, a tendency to steal, lie, or be otherwise morally compromised. It’s clear that this antihero is part of the good fight, but is immoral in other respects.

Common examples of antiheroes in film or literature are Flynn Rider from Tangled (he is a habitual thief and betrays his own friends), Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and that of Tom Sawyer (he is irresponsible and immature as well as ignorant), Venom/Eddie Brock from the MCU (he literally eats people regardless of the morality thereof), and, oddly enough, Mark Zuckerberg. (Just a villain, in my opinion)

Antiheroes also come with a sliding scale: on the moral status meter, on the left is moral good and the right is moral evil. Usually, a hero’s moral status leans strongly towards the left (but never should be perfect; I’ll get to that in a second). An antihero’s moral status can be almost anywhere on the moral status meter, provided it’s not in the upper 90% or the bottom 5% (otherwise they can basically be considered a hero or a villain). The point is that you can have good antiheroes and bad antiheroes–hence, “shapes and sizes”.

But why do you want antiheroes in your story? First off, you don’t want a main character who’s perfect. A righteous do-gooder is the last person someone wants to read about. If readers read to discover conflict, fill the story with it: the hero’s house burns down, his father dies, a dark lord overtakes the planet, the world erupts into nuclear war, etc. Having a conflict of morality within a main character (if not the main character) is a perfect way to add additional conflict to your tale.

So, there are four main kinds of antiheroes that I’ve managed to track down. They are as follows: the Gambler, the Pragmatist, the Nihilist, and the Unlikely Hero. These archetypes roughly cover each 25% mark on the spectrum of morality and are easily recognizable in literature and pop culture.

First up: the Gambler. Probably the most easily recognized as a hero, he or she is just barely an antihero, posessing only a few un-herolike vices like gambling, recklessness, or a tendency to be cynical or sarcastic. Han Solo from Star Wars or Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean are perfect examples. By no means an innocent character, but clearly a good guy.

The biggest problem about this character is his or her motivation. Usually, the Gambler only joins the party or fight because there’s something in it for him. He usually has to bribed or hired before he starts to fight. However, since the Gambler is truly a hero under all those layers of scum, his character arc includes him changing his motive to something more meaningful, but his personality usually stays the way it is.

Next we have the Pragmatist. This character is very popular because he or she is so simple: the Pragmatist has a moral that he sticks to through thick and thin, but won’t keep from doing unsavory things in order to achieve his goals. Moiraine from The Wheel of Time (which I did a review on not too long ago) has this antihero’s tendencies.

This is the ultimate “ends-justify-the-means” character. He’s typically (but not always) brutal and unfeeling, especially to those who stand in the way of his goals. The upside is that he sees an objective moral value that governs all of reality; the downside is that said moral is probably vague and laser-focused and doesn’t prevent him from doing other shabby things.

The Nihilist is more than just a mere philosopher: he actually doesn’t believe that there’s a such thing as “wrong” or “right”. He merely does what he wants. This makes him a ripe candidate for villain status just as well as antihero. This character only joins the good fight because there’s something that he values on the line: a loved one, a possession, revenge.

In no way is the Nihilist driven by anything good. However, this doesn’t prevent the Nihilist from becoming an antihero and doing morally good things. However, it works just like that on the flipside: there’s nothing that keeps the Nihilist from becoming an inhuman monster. In this respect, Willy Wonka (from the old Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is more or less an antihero.

Our last contestant is the Unlikely Hero. By far more popular than the Nihilist, the Unlikely Hero is a villain who has temporarily aligned themselves with the good guys. This usually takes the form of a jaded henchman who has become disillusioned with the main villain, and so defects to the heroes in order to gain revenge. That’s the most frequent turn of events, but it can happen other ways.

Nothing complicated here: just a villain in every respect except that they’re working (usually temporarily) with the good guys. Rakdos in Ravnica: War of the Spark (if you’re an MTG nerd) and Lucius from This Present Darkness are good examples. On the sliding scale of morality, this kind of antihero is only barely so.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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